B.C. teachers' math lesson: workers + labour rights = stability

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photo: flickr/Caelie_Frampton

Uncertainty, stability and fairness: these words have become the guise by which Canadian governments strip unions of the democratic right to bargain collectively.

Don't believe it? Take then, for example, the ongoing collective bargaining over teachers' contracts in British Columbia.

The BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) has been wrangling with the provincial government over their contracts. The teachers want to protect their right to negotiate class sizes, composition and support for classes for special needs students -- working conditions are as important to them as safety concerns are for steel workers.

Yet the B.C. government has repeatedly targeted the teachers ability to negotiate these working conditions. In the last 12 years, two separate bills that took the away the ability to negotiate class size and composition have been passed by the B.C. legislature only to be struck down by courts.

The B.C. Supreme Court struck down the latest, Bill 22, on January 27 because the judge found that it violated the Charter right to freedom of association. Also among the judge's finding was that the B.C. government had negotiated in bad faith, in an attempt to force the teachers into a strike. While the judge ordered that the government pay $2 million in compensation and restore the rights retroactively, the government was granted a stay while they appealed the ruling.

So again, the teachers -- who as of last week were in a legal strike position -- find themselves without the ability to negotiate key working conditions.

Jim Iker, president of BCTF, remains positive that with both parties at the table a solution can be found. "I want a deal negotiated at the bargaining table," he said. "So as long as we're talking that's a really good thing."

B.C. Minister of Education Peter Fassbender maintains that they have approached the bargaining table in good faith, and that class sizes and composition are still on the table. He also told reporters during a press conference that he wanted to ensure stability in the years to come. "Our interest is students, teachers, parents and ultimately the tax payers of B.C.," he said.

It's why he says he's pursing a ten-year contract with the BCTF. 

The picture Fassbender paints is one of a government that is working to maintain stability while a restless union makes demands by threatening to strike, causing uncertainty for taxpayers. 

Therefore, it's not surprising that the B.C. government will try to enforce and justify legislation that the top provincial court has deemed in violation of the guiding law of this country.

And the B.C. government are not alone in claiming stability and fairness while at the same time stripping down collective bargaining rights.

In Alberta, Bill 46 would have stripped the ability of the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) to go to binding arbitration and allowed the Alberta government to impose wages on the workers should no new collective agreement be reached.

But, similar to the B.C. case, a court in Alberta decided the law couldn't stand -- at least for now. An injunction of Bill 46 requested by AUPE was granted until courts can determine its constitutionality.

After the decision, Alberta Deputy Premier Dave Hancock issued a statement with some all too familiar language. "A negotiated settlement that is fair to employees and taxpayers is -- and always has been -- our preferred option," he wrote.

The workers in the federal public service also find themselves in a similar situation. Bill C-4 -- the budget omnibus bill introduced in 2013 -- gives the federal government exclusive right to determine which public services workers are essential. If over 80 per cent of workers in a bargaining unit are deemed essential -- essential workers are deemed so if their work is needed to ensure the safety and security of the public -- they go right to arbitration.

Since last fall, President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement has justified these changes in the name of fairness. He told CBC News in November that he believed the changes would make the rules "fair and balanced" -- as if negotiation between two parties was somehow unevenly weighted previously.

Unions have been fighting PR wars against governments for most of their existence. But in 2014, after years of people getting used to austerity measures in the name of stability, unions constantly bare the brunt of blame for any work disruption they take as part of trying to negotiate a collective agreement.

But when provincial and federal legislators are hacking away at democratic rights or threatening extended contracts with no ability to arbitrate, what choice is left for labour unions?

BCTF certainly see this as not just a labour issue, but a democratic issue. "The [B.C.] government believe that they can just violate constitution of the country," said Iker. "And I think the public expects government to uphold the law not break the law."

The irony, of course, is that if governments did actually come to the table in good faith and did what they were supposed to do, we would avoid uncertainty. Collective bargaining, as demonstrated in many instances over the years, does work if both sides can come to the table ready to talk.

This isn't a call for government to roll over to unions -- concessions still have to be made on both sides for negotiations to have any hope of working.

But to do that both sides have to be on relatively even footing. If governments continue to attempt to strip rights instead of simply bargaining, then they will create the uncertain situations they crow so hard about avoiding.

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